Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms - Bret Easton Ellis

A genuine literary event.

That is what it says at the bottom of the front jacket cover for this book, underneath a general description of the plot, which is this: the sequel to Less Than Zero, twenty-five years later. Clay is a screenwriter, who is interested in a girl, and he tries to get this girl a part in the new movie he's producing. Plus Blair, Julian, and Rip are back from the original.

But calling it "a genuine literary event" seems, I don't know, desperate?

And all of the praise on the back seems nice, until you realize it is for Lunar Park. Then maybe you venture over to Amazon to check the reviews to see if it will be worth the investment in a hardcover edition--and you see the reviews are scathing. And you wonder, oh great, what did I get myself into.

But I am here to tell you that you do not need to be worried--those reviews are wrong. This book is good. It may not deliver on every single level that every reader could possibly desire, but it is not a bad book. It is not poorly written, as much as amateur critics may point towards nonexistent complexity of language, poor, vague description, and meaningless run-on sentencing. It is a different sort of book in the same way that Lunar Park was. Obviously, it's not the classic that Less Than Zero is, or even up to the level of The Rules of Attraction, and of course its scope pales in comparison to American Psycho (which I haven't even read to the end) or Glamorama (which I think is the real masterpiece in his oeuvre, thus far). It's better than The Informers, and I like it better than Lunar Park, I think, though that book had moments.

Why is it so similar to Lunar Park? Because the theme is the same: paranoia. In that novel, it may be imagined, and it is played for horror. In this novel, it is not imagined, and it is played for mystery. If Lunar Park is BEE doing Stephen King, then Imperial Bedrooms is BEE doing Raymond Chandler. Aside from paranoia, and genre-hopping, Ellis pokes more fun at himself in the opening segment of the novel. In Lunar Park, it is one of the most dazzling sequences of any of his books, re-telling the history of his literary career, and the various lies and half-truths that have been told about him over the years. In Imperial Bedrooms, it is a parallel segment relating the history of Less Than Zero--except Clay is claiming that it all really happened, and none of their names were changed, and the author was someone they knew. Ellis takes advantage of the opportunity to critique the adaptation of his debut:

"In the movie I was played by an actor who actually looked more like me than the character the author portrayed in the book: I wasn't blond, I wasn't tan, and neither was the actor. I also suddenly became the movie's moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone's drug use and trying to save Julian. ('I'll sell my car,' I warn the actor playing Julian's dealer. 'Whatever it takes.') This was slightly less true of the adaptation of Blair's character, played by a girl who actually seemed like she belonged in our group--jittery, sexually available, easily wounded. Julian became the sentimentalized version of himself, acted by a talented, sad-faced clown, who has an affair with Blair and then realizes he has to let her go because I was his best bud. 'Be good to her,' Julian tells Clay. 'She really deserves it.' The sheer hypocrisy of this scene must have made the author blanch. (7)

And then more obvious differences:

"The reason the movie dropped everything that made the novel real was because there was no way the parents who ran the studio would ever expose their children in the same black light the book did. The movie was begging for our sympathy whereas the book didn't give a shit. And attitudes about drugs and sex had shifted quickly from 1985 to 1987 (and a regime change at the studio didn't help) so the source material--surprisingly conservative despite its surface immorality--had to be reshaped. The best way to look at the movie was as modern eighties noir--the cinematography was breathtaking--and I sighed as it kept streaming forward, interested in only a few things: the new and gentle details of my parents mildly amused me, as did Blair finding her divorced father with his girlfriend on Christmas Eve instead of with a boy named Jared (Blair's father died of AIDS in 1992 while still married to Blair's mother). But the thing I remember most about that screening in October twenty years ago was the moment Julian grasped my hand that had gone numb on the armrest separating our seats. He did this because in the book Julian Wells lived but in the movie's new scenario he had to die. He had to be punished for all of his sins. That's what the movie demanded." (8)

And here is a good opportunity to talk about spoilers: many of the reviews on Amazon say they are not spoiling anything by revealing two different plot points of this novel--but they are. In the same way they're idiots for calling the book a piece of crap, they're idiots for saying they're not spoiling anything (...because you wouldn't want to waste your time anyways, etc.)

Clay is in his mid-40's, splitting time between New York and L.A., and recently returned to L.A. for the casting of his new film The Listeners. It is perhaps worth noting that this is more L.A.-centric than anything Ellis has done since Less Than Zero. The city is used in almost every paragraph of the story. Angelenos will find Ellis's choice settings appropriate for the tone of the novel, and that they add another layer of enjoyment. By page 100, it seems clear that Ellis is writing a mystery novel in the tradition of Chandler or James Cain, and the L.A. setting circa 2008 or 2009 is a wonderful update on that sixty or seventy-year-old geographically-centered story.

Most of the plot hinges around one of the girls auditioning for a part in this movie--Rain Turner--and the mystery of her former employment, ex-boyfriends, and general lifestyle. It's a bit mundane--perhaps not all that imaginative--and there is a line near the end of the novel that seems to poke fun at how cookie-cutter/predictable the plot becomes--but even with that, it is surprising enough to keep reading.

Most importantly, Ellis delivers magic with this book: in a way that none of his other books have since, he captures the pace and intensity of the prose of Less Than Zero and puts it to use in a new narrative with old characters. Towards the end, again, there seem to be a few scenes that are reminiscent of the first novel, and this has something of a disquieting effect. The big relief though is that Ellis does not mess it up. Like the Seinfeld reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm, there can be a lot of doubt about the point of bringing back once-popular characters. And maybe there's no point to Imperial Bedrooms, but I don't see it as an opportunity to cash in on Robert Downey Jr.'s reinvigoration, or to reflect upon the passing of Michael Jackson and John Hughes and 80's nostalgia. No, it writes a new chapter in the previous book, and while its story is nowhere near as fresh and original as the first, it's still a pretty good story: tell me that a film adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms with the original actors from Less Than Zero would not be one of the coolest things ever done.

But people in Hollywood are idiots, and one of the good things about this book is the way it casually acknowledges that. To sum things up, the best thing about Imperial Bedrooms is the way the pace matches Less Than Zero. This is a short book at around 170 pages, but for nearly half of it, let's say between pages 60 and 130, I didn't want to put it down.

And it should be clear at this point why most people like to trash Ellis--you either get it or you don't. You either love him or hate him. People that trash him don't get him. People that trash him might quote the passage I am about to quote and call it a perfect example of why his writing is terrible. Of course, I am quoting it to show the opposite, how a casual epiphany can come out of a commonplace situation:

"Dr. Woolf leaves a message on my landline canceling tomorrow's session and telling me that he can't see me as a patient anymore but that he'll refer me to someone else and the next morning I drive to the building on Sawtelle and park on the fourth floor of the garage and wait for his noon session to be over because that's when he takes his lunch break and I'm listening to a song with the lyric So leave everything you know and carry only what you fear...over and over again and I'm nodding to myself while smoking cigarettes and making a list of all the things I'm not going to ask Rain about and deciding I'll accept all the false explanations she's going to give me and how that's the only plan, and then I'm remembering the person who warned me about how the world has to be a place where no one is interested in your questions and that if you're alone nothing bad can happen to you." (107)

That is all one sentence but I happen to think it is a very good one. And while I totally acknowledge that this book is not a masterpiece, that Ellis has done better, there are totally memorable moments in this novel that will exist comfortably alongside previous ones. I'd rather read Less Than Zero again (especially since my copy was lost)--because that book, more than any other book, can be viewed as a guide to writing your very own breakout novel--but Imperial Bedrooms is a nice treat. You can read it even if you haven't read Less Than Zero, but it helps.

I'm just sad that I'll probably have to wait until I am 30 to read a new book by Bret Easton Ellis. He has continued with his relative consistency, and has not done anything to make me lose any interest in his work. If I were Ellis, I would want to write a Pulitzer-worthy, six-hundred page piece de resistance for publication around my fiftieth birthday, to silence all doubters and haters, but it seems too easy. Perhaps people want to criticize Ellis for not attempting to write a masterpiece here--but he has accomplished something that many in the "industry" often fail at: he's delivered a sequel that isn't disappointing. Who knows if he is going to go back to writing longer books, or books that get mentioned as the best of the year, and who cares. He's about as commercial as you can get, as far as fiction writers go, but I don't consider him a sell-out in the least, and maybe that is what continues to impress me about him.

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